The National Security Agency (NSA) is getting rid of hundreds of millions of records logging phone calls and texts that it had gathered from American telecommunication companies since 2015. The agency has disclosed that its database was contaminated with some files the agency did not have authority to receive and is now purging them.
According to the New York Times, the security agency began destroying the records on May 23 and officials had discovered ‘technical irregularities’ this year in its collection from phone companies of so-called call record details. These details include metadata showing who called or texted whom and when but does not reveal what they said on the call.
The agency has been collecting call records of its users using a system created under the USA Freedom Act. The law was enacted in 2015 to end and replace the once-secret NSA program that had systematically collected domestic calling records of Americans in bulk. The NSA uses this data to analyze social links and track hidden terrorism suspects and bad actors in the country.
The National Security Agency’s data collection traces back to the Bush administration which allowed the agency to conduct domestic surveillance as part of the secret Stellarwind surveillance program. The privilege to do surveil American citizens was granted post the September 11, 2001 attacks. The data collection practice became public after it was exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013 and it was justified under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
After Snowden revealed NSA’s surveillance activity, the Congress enacted the Freedom Act to end and replace the program. The bulk data about Americans’ phone calls and text now remains in the hands of telecoms and the NSA may collect the only specific set of records from it. It is entitled to collect phone logs of a surveillance target and of everyone that person had contacted by procuring authorization from a judge.
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The NSA collected 151 million call records under the Freedom Act in 2016 and 534 million records in 2017, reveals the government reports. The agency did not explain what technical irregularities caused the problem. It says one or more telecom providers responded to court orders for targets’ records by sending logs that included both accurate data and some numbers of people that the target had not been in contact with.
“If the first information was incorrect, even though on its face it looked like any other number, then when we fed that back out, by definition we’d get records back on the second hop that we did not have authority to collect,” said Glenn S. Gerstell, the National Security Agency’s general counsel. Gerstell added that the agency worked with telecommunications companies to figure out the sources of the problem and has fixed the same. It has decided to purge all the data since it is infeasible to identify and selectively delete the contaminated records in its database.